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Thursday June 10, 2010

Former nun was an advocate for the history of the Irish in Quebec

Special to The Globe and Mail

Marianna O'Gallagher was a leading authority on all things Irish in Quebec who was instrumental in having Grosse Île preserved as a national historic site in 1988. The island in the St. Lawrence River was a quarantine station for thousands of Irish immigrants who died there of typhus fleeing the potato famine in Ireland in 1847. O'Gallagher, a former Roman Catholic nun, was one of the first to systematically research and write about Quebec's Irish roots. She was 81 when she died on May 23 of lung cancer.

"She was an amateur historian, but she was relentless. Her energy, focus and commitment to Irish history was indefatigable. It has been her whole life," said Michael Kenneally, principal of the School of Irish Studies at Montreal's Concordia University.

"She was a towering figure, the most impressive Irish scholar in Quebec of her generation. She single-handedly caused Grosse Île to be opened as a park the way it is. When Concordia began offering Irish study courses in 1996, we built on her foundations."

Marianna O'Gallagher, the eldest of six children in a land surveyor's family, was born in Sainte-Foy, Que., March 24, 1929. At the age of 23, she joined the Sisters of Charity in Halifax. She studied history at Mount St. Vincent University then received her doctorate from the University of Ottawa where she completed her thesis on the history of St. Patrick's church in Quebec City. Sister O'Gallagher taught at high schools in Nova Scotia, New York and New Brunswick, and at St. Patrick's High school in Quebec City. In 1973, she was given permission from the federal government to visit Grosse Île for the first time. O'Gallagher's grandfather, Jeremiah, an engineer, designed the granite Celtic cross that commemorates the estimated 6,000 immigrants who died and are buried there. When she went ashore she discovered the brambles and raspberry bushes in the cemetery were waist high, and she was swamped with emotion at the neglect.

She began a massive letter writing campaign urging Members of Parliament to recognize the significance of the island.

"She was a mover, a treasure trove of information. She had a warmth about her, she was able to communicate," said Don Pidgeon, an Irish historian in Montreal. "She was open and giving with an earthy sense of humour, and she was not overly impressed with the fact that she was Marianna O'Gallagher."

She founded Irish Heritage Quebec, a community group designed to raise awareness of the province's unique Irish experience. Although 500,000 Quebeckers claim to be of Irish ancestry, it is estimated that 40 per cent of the province's population can claim some Irish heritage.

In 1981, O'Gallagher started her own publishing company, Carraig Books (the Gaelic word for rock). Among her books are Grosse Île, Gateway to Canada, 1832-1957, and The Shamrock Trail: The Irish in Quebec City. Her work inspired a number of other authors to build on her scholarship.

She left the religious community in 1985. "You will have to get out of the habit of calling me sister," she would reprimand friends. "I'm out of the habit." When the federal government declared Grosse Ile a national historic site in 1988, O'Gallagher was modest about her contributions. "The achievement is not mine," she said. "I can't take any credit. It is the result of work done by the lobbyists, historians, archeologists and ethnologists. I certainly could not have done it alone."

O'Gallager is featured in the current exhibition at the McCord Museum in Montreal, Being Irish O'Quebec, as one of the 10 most important figures in Quebec's Irish history.

She was a recipient of the Ordre National du Québec in 1998, and in 2002 was named to the Order of Canada. She was the grand marshal of this year's St. Patrick's parade in Quebec City.

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